The Association of Iranian Film and Theatre Artists Abroad (AIFTAA) offers support across borders to women who are “rooted underground” in Iran. We talked with filmmaker/artist Mania Akbari and playwriter and director Niloofar Beyzaie from the association, which tries to make the voice of the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement heard all over the world.
Interview: Gözde Onaran, Senem Aytaç, Fırat Yücel
Translation: Gözde Onaran
The women-led protests that erupted in Iran last September, following the death of Mahsa Jina Amini while under the custody of the morality police, have also found strong and widespread support among Iranians who live abroad. While the protests have sparked an intense wave of activism all over the world, new forms of solidarity are emerging among Iranians in diaspora. Iranian filmmakers and theatre artists who were forced to leave their country because they were not able to work under the oppression of the regime have formed the Association of Iranian Film and Theatre Artists Abroad (AIFTAA). In a statement released in January they announced their purpose to support the protests against the regime in Iran. In our interview with two of the founders of AIFTAA – the filmmaker and artist Mania Akbari who has been living in London since 2011 and the playwright and theatre director Niloofar Beyzaie who relates that she has been in exile in Germany for thirty seven years – we discuss their decision to form the association and how they plan to support this unprecedented revolutionary movement in their home country.
Can you introduce yourself briefly. How and why did you decide to form this group? In your first statement you mention that you came together despite a diversity in perspectives and intellectual tendencies, how was that possible?
Mania Akbari: I am a feminist filmmaker and artist from Iran, living in the UK for 11 years. My work explores sexual identity, embodiment, body and trauma, body image, and the body politic. In contrast to the long tradition of melodrama in Iranian cinema, my style is rooted in visual arts and autobiography.
Most of us had no choice but to leave Iran. We left at different times and got scattered all over the world. I was an independent underground filmmaker, and under the rule of the Islamic Republic, many of us didn’t have the necessary security for a creative life and work without censorship. For example, when I was going abroad for festivals, I didn’t wear a hijab. So, at one point, they took my passport and wanted me to sign a paper and promise that next time I would wear a hijab. At that time, we didn’t have social media or any other means to help our voices to be heard, to publicise that we were under the pressure of the Islamic regime.
In 2011, when I was in the UK to screen my film, I had an interview with the BBC without a hijab. At that time, I had cancer, and my face was very different, very ill-looking. The next day, the regime chose one of my photos in which I looked very ill and around 18 websites of Hezbollah and other government media used those images of me and wrote: “Mania Akbari is a lesbian and she is HIV+. That’s why she ran away from Iran to the UK.” I didn’t have HIV, and I wasn’t a lesbian; Also, I hadn’t run away. But I couldn’t return to Iran after these fake news.
All of us had similar experiences. We didn’t choose to leave Iran. This remarkable and amazing political revolution that is happening right now – body revolution, women’s body revolution, “Woman, Life, Freedom” – gave us a chance to make a huge impact around the world. We wanted to expand the call for freedom from Iran to Afghanistan, from Baluchistan to Kurdistan. This was very important for us, so we decided to come together to support the rights of political prisoners and protesting artists who are under pressure, harmed, or imprisoned in Iran. We also decided to stand with the progressive movement of “Woman, Life, Freedom/Jin, Jîyan, Azadî” . We decided to hold each other’s hands and amplify the voice of this important organic movement in Iran. For example, most recently, our association wrote an important statement to support the young girls who were poisoned in their schools by the regime.
Niloofar Beyzaie: I am a playwright and theatre director. I have been living in exile in Germany for 37 years. In my plays I have always dealt with women’s issues and life under the rule of a totalitarian government and patriarchal structures. Mania Akbari called me and spoke to me about her decision to start an association for film and theatre artists. I welcomed it very much because we tried so hard to establish such an association years ago, however it didn’t work. But now, given the situation in Iran and the protests of the Iranian people, I think that such an organization is necessary to protect the rights of the artists who are under pressure, to protect and support the people against the oppressions of the Islamic regime. The Islamic Republic suppresses dissidents, or rather, anyone who does not think like itself. Therefore, the fight against the oppression of the Islamic Republic is a national issue. This is the most important reason.
Women are at the centre of the current revolution. It is the most powerful and most promising movement against the Islamic Republic so far. How do you think the involvement and leadership of women made such a difference?
N.B. One of the main foundations which the Islamic Republic is built on is the control of the body and the presence of women in society. After the Islamic Republic came to power, women lost many of their rights, and Islamic laws reduced them to second-class creatures. All kinds of discrimination were applied to them; the right to decide their fate was given to their husbands and fathers. Iranian women have been fighting for their lost rights for years, but this time, this new generation of women, in addition to insisting on their rights, came to the streets with incredible courage and shouted their demands and were able to pave the way for a revolutionary movement that aims to overthrow the Islamic Republic. These women came to the field of struggle for the right to choose, the right to human life, for life and freedom, and they remained determined. That’s why we see that, despite widespread repressions, the protest aspect of this movement is still preserved and continues in the form of various actions. The government killed and imprisoned many people in recent protests. Still, as soon as these women leave prison they disobey and take off their headscarves – even if they have been released only temporarily and their court will be held soon. Another important issue is that today many men are standing next to women in the ranks of struggle and do not leave them alone like they did in previous protests.
M.A. Women were the first group to resist Ruhollah Khomeini’s attempt to impose Islamic rules, such as the “mandatory hijab”, only thirty-five days after his arrival in Iran in March 1979. Today, in Iran, women have the support of most people, men and women, including those with religious, traditional, or rural backgrounds. They all support the demands of Iranian women, or at least, do not feel threatened by their brave act of burning their scarves in public. The demands are very simple and point to some basic human rights that everyone around the world can relate to. What is shocking, however, is the absence and lack of those rights for women in Iran. The void, the lack, the “what” which is not there, and especially the reactions of the younger generation of Iranians to this “void”, have captured people’s imagination. Today, thousands of protesters in Iran are risking their lives for human dignity, women’s rights, equality, choice, privacy, individual liberties, democracy, freedom, and ordinary life. Today, Iranian youth have reminded the world of the importance of some universal values, showing that not every social or moral value is relative. People have found ways to be culturally sensitive without having double standards. Human experience shows that sharing values plays an important role in bringing people closer to each other and igniting a sense of compassion and empathy. Whether the ability to understand and share the feelings of others is behind the need for some common values or vice versa, one cannot deny the power of having shared universal values. Of course, values can be changed, revised, or redefined. Lots of journalists, reporters, philosophers, academics, feminists, etc. worked really hard for all these years underground. “Woman, Life, Freedom” is the result of their work. They created very strong and interconnected roots everywhere – not just Tehran: In Kurdistan, in Baluchistan, even in Türkiye. It is very beautiful.
Lots of journalists, reporters, philosophers, academics, feminists, etc. worked really hard for all these years underground. “Woman, Life, Freedom” is the result of their work.
The revolutionary movement of the Iranian people, led by female activists and freedom fighters with the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom,” aims to establish security, political and social freedoms, combat discrimination against women, sexual and gender identities, religious and national identities, and strive to end oppression, torture, and executions. These days, the Islamic Republic is so horrified by this movement that they have resorted to committing another inhumane crime by carrying out multiple chemical attacks on schools, especially against female students, to suppress the revolutionary girls of the ‘Jina Revolution’. The irreversible effects and dangers of these poisonous gases on the students’ health are still unknown. The new generation has proven they will not back down from the fight until the end of this regressive and misogynist government. While victims’ families, alongside freedom-seeking people, protest and demand an immediate stop to these organized crimes by the government, the government is suppressing protesters to normalize the status quo. The repressive forces of the Islamic Republic have shown they would use any means to ensure their survival. History has proven that oppressive regimes can cross the boundaries of crimes against humanity and commit even greater atrocities. The Association of Iranian Film and Theatre Artists Abroad supports Iranian people’s fight for their rights and calls on the international artistic communities and all freedom advocates to be the voice of Iranian people and not to remain silent in the face of this systematic violence.
In her latest documentary, Mania Akbari explores the ‘male gaze’ in Iranian cinema. How Dare You Have Such a Rubbish Wish, 2022. Click here for Senem Aytaç’s IDFA 2022 evaluation, which also mentions Akbari’s film (In Turkish).
You mentioned that some of the feminists are religious. So there is a solidarity between the secular and the religious people and they all agree on changing the regime.
M.A. I saw some beautiful images: a woman with a chador holding the hand of a woman without a hijab, both attending the protest together. This is both beautiful and poetic, and carries a strong political message. The protests are not about the chador, but rather about the freedom to choose what to wear. The young generation does not want to impose their beliefs on others, but rather wants everyone to be free to choose their own religion, beliefs, and attire. They are fighting against fascism, dictatorship, patriarchal society, and misogyny. They demand control over their own bodies and a revolution. Women worldwide have been fighting against objectification and for bodily autonomy, but the women in Iran have turned every moment of their lives into a revolutionary act due to their experiences of pain and oppression.
The women’s presence as subjects in public space also present a key turn historically. Do you think the changes in the meaning of public space or the power relations in the public space are sustainable? Do you believe these changes will have long term effects?
M.A. Gender remains a neglected focus for theory and practice in shaping cities. How can this be the case, given several decades of feminist scholarship? Dominant perspectives within the “right to the city” literature pay little attention to how “rights” are gendered. In contrast, feminist and queer scholarship concerned with everyday life and the multiple spatial tactics of marginalised city dwellers reveals a more complex urban arena in which rights are negotiated or practiced. A fuller recognition of the contested publics that coexist within the contemporary city and the gendered mediation of everyday experiences could enable planners and policymakers to undertake more inclusive forms of intervention in urban space.
Dictatorial governments like the Islamic Republic, build cities to control women’s bodies. Cities are designed for men, with the power to control all protesting. However, this time, it is a revolution! Maybe it will take time, but it is impossible for the government to stop it. We are not going back. Even if people are not on the streets at this moment, it doesn’t matter. They have a voice everywhere now, and it is very strong. The regime couldn’t control it. They couldn’t stop it. It is rooted underground everywhere – they can’t cut these roots.
Our association wrote a statement for International Women’s Day to support women’s voices. Because this year is very different for Iranian people.
From the protests following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in custody. September 19, 2022, Tehran.
Islamic Republic is built on is the control of the body and the presence of women in society. But this time, this new generation of women came to the streets with incredible courage and shouted their demands and were able to pave the way for a revolutionary movement that aims to overthrow the Islamic Republic.
N.B. I believed for a long time that the next revolution in Iran would be a women’s revolution and its demands would be freedom, legal equality, and democracy for Iran. While the government tried to reduce their role to housewives, women always strived to study and to be present in public spaces. The amount of educated and informed women is very high and this is the result of their own efforts and their resistance against the government’s attempts to push them back. The social presence of women has affected Iranian society and its view of women deeply and lastingly.
Considering the cases of Elham Modaresi, Shirin Samadi, and the recent detainment of Taraneh Alidoosti, can you say that the regime deliberately targets and tries to silence feminist filmmakers?
N.B. The more effective the resistance to the imposition of discrimination and violation of women’s rights, the more the regime will try to break it. These women have grown up in this regime. The regime even tried to use them to show the normality of the atmosphere in Iran. But the movement of “Women, Life, Freedom” has given them the courage and endurance to resist the regime even at the cost of passing their privileges.
In her play ‘One File, Two Murders’, Niloofar Beyzaie, who has lived in Frankfurt since 1985, tells the story of two opposition figures, Parwaneh and Dariush Forouhar, who fell victim to the regime’s political assassinations in 1988.
In your first statement you say that the Islamic Republic uses artistic international festivals and gatherings for propaganda purposes. Can you give more detail?
N.B. The Islamic Republic controls all artistic fields inside the country, censors and bans films, puts pressure on artists and at the same time controls the economy of Iranian cinema through film organisations affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Without the support of these organisations it is not possible to make a film. In this way, the government tries to put pressure on artists through dependence on its resources. Meanwhile, it also exerts influence on international festivals through its lobbies. In order to gain the cooperation of the West, they allow critical Iranian films to participate in western festivals, however they put severe pressure on the actors of the films and force them to remain silent in response to Western journalists or to make Iran’s laws appear normal.
The Islamic Republic controls all artistic fields inside the country, censors and bans films, puts pressure on artists and at the same time controls the economy of Iranian cinema through film organisations affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
M.A. Therefore, the most important thing that the West can do is to stop working with the Iranian regime. They make great statements; their words are beautiful but they are not enough and I don’t see how they can help the Iranian people when there is no pressure on the government. Every day the Iranian government executes people. They hang them! Those who are able to come out of prison are deeply traumatised. We have lots of suicides after prison. The westerners talk about solidarity but what exactly is solidarity? What is the political language? What is a political act? This movement should not turn into another source for the west to make money. Also, currently, there is an ongoing popular boycott against works produced by organisations affiliated with the Islamic Republic or works distributed with endorsement from the regime. While backing this boycott, we, AIFTAA declare our utmost support for independent and underground productions of Iran’s film and theatre. It was these independent works, through pain and sacrifices of their creators, that managed to keep the true face of Iran alive. AIFTAA, as is evident from its name, is responsible for activities concerning its members all of whom live outside of Iran. However, we consider it our moral duty to show our solidarity with independent artists inside Iran. We will try with all our hearts, and with honesty and a sense of responsibility, to help amplify those voices that the Islamic Republic is trying to suppress. We will do our best to support independent Iranian artists to present and display their works in the international arena. Therefore, we at AIFTAA, announce our readiness to introduce artists who have created or continue to create independent works during these days. We invite all film and theatre artists in Iran – in case they feel the need to be supported by the association – to contact us and to send us the details of their works.
AIFTAA shares boycott calls on its social media accounts. “The red carpet of this year’s Fajr Festival is rolled out on the blood of the people of Iran. Do not attend this propaganda event!”
If you would ask them they would say that they are already severely punishing the Iranian government, that there are already harsh sanctions in place against the Iranian government.
M.A. But under the table they still make deals with them. Actually, the sanctions affect the people in Iran but not the government. Another issue is that some Western news presents what’s happening not as a revolution but as if it was just protests against the hijab. But it is beyond that. It is not just that women don’t want the hijab – of course they want to be able to control their own bodies. But, more than that, people don’t want this regime, they don’t want the Islamic Republic. But the western news never talks about this. They never use the word ‘revolution’. Most of western media is conservative. For instance they only focus on Tehran as if Iran consists only of Tehran. Also, when they report imprisonments they only mention the famous names. But Iran is not just Tehran; the revolution is not happening only there. Actually, most of it is happening in Kurdistan, Baluchistan. And not just in cities but also in villages. The celebrities that get support from Western media already have a voice. For example, Taraneh Alidoosti was released after two weeks. But nobody knows most of the people who are in jail – they have no names. We have to help make a name for them so that they don’t become victims of the regime. That is one of the most important missions of our organisation.
Apart from the international scene, do you think there will be a response from the organisations within İran, such as film festivals?
N.B. İran’da hüInside Iran, we don’t have festivals that are independent of government control. On the contrary, the Islamic Republic invites western filmmakers with anti-American tendencies to festivals in Iran in order to give the impression that there is alignment with the West.
As film and theatre artists, how do you plan to amplify the voices of the Iranian people? What kinds of projects do you have in mind? Do you have any plans regarding the organisation of local events, groups or institutions?
N.B. By reflecting the voices of artists under pressure in Iran; by opposing the government’s treatment of protesting artists; by informing international festivals and confronting the influence of Iranian government institutions on these festivals; by writing letters to our colleagues around the world and explaining the government’s goals; by organising film and theatre festivals without censorship; by supporting artists who are under pressure from the government and whose work is suppressed.
M.A. Psychologically we give hope to the people in Iran. It is very important that they know that we support them and that we increase their voice. It gives them strength to continue with the revolution.
Also, we try to repeat the names of every person in prison. We put it on social media and try to make a big name out of it and give a big voice to them. Especially if the government is planning to execute them.
We want this association to create a bigger voice for Iranian feminists. Also, we want to focus on Kurdish and Baluch people, and on LGBTQI people. All are very important for us. We want to open a door in the exact opposite of the Iranian regime for the queer and LGBTQI people and welcome them to the association and give them more voice.
The Jina Revolution sparked interest in Iranian feminist cinema. this illustration accompanied an article on the subject in The Print. (Soham Sen)
Is this something that everyone involved in the movement agrees on?
M.A. Yes, we are all on the same page. We want to be as inclusive as possible. The doors of our association are open for everybody. Otherwise we couldn’t call it ‘collective’. Also, I personally believe that future cinema is LGBTQI cinema, future art is LGBTQI art. We have to accept that.
How do you think Iranian artists in the diaspora affect this whole process? What is their influence outside and inside Iran? Are there any gaps between addresses of speech? Can you describe the positive and/or negative effects on the resistance – if any?
N.B. The protest movements of Iranian people inside and outside of Iran have become closer. Although most of us artists living outside Iran have left the country due to pressures, threats, and censorship, we always tried to reflect the voices of our colleagues who remained in Iran and were under pressure. Many of the artists who stayed in Iran were perhaps more concerned about professional interests and preferred to remain silent. Meanwhile, we tried to report the oppression that prevails in the artistic and social environment in Iran. What brings us closer to each other today is that many of the prominent artists in Iran who were silent previously have joined this movement and started to publicly protest against the government.
One of the major issues for us is the hijacking of “Women, Life, Freedom” by the West. They want to create a brand, to sell t-shirts, bags, and hats. We want to prevent the West from creating a capitalist market from this revolutionary movement.
M.A. Many people who are participating in “Women, Life, Freedom” will have to leave Iran because they are in danger of incarceration. We want to welcome them and support them emotionally, mentally, and financially. We want to give strength to people who are in asylum and don’t have anyone to support them. We try to hold hands and create a family for them. We want them to feel safe with us. We also fundraise to help them economically.
We also want to organise online workshops to create a dialogue between the young Iranian generation in cinema or theatre and artists and filmmakers from around the world. The Iranian government never allows them to have such a dialogue. Universities are controlled by the government and many artists don’t want to work with the government. So they don’t participate in Iranian festivals or are not accepted to universities. But our association is independent and they can trust us. It is very important to build this artistic dialogue between Iran and the West and other countries.
In cases where the government blames foreign forces, it’s said sometimes that the international support may backlash, that it may give the government another reason to force imprisonments. Considering the worldwide silence towards the imprisonments in Iran and how the regime reacted, what can you say about this dilemma between forming an international solidarity or pushing for more local struggle tactics?
N.B. The experience of the last 43 years has shown that the more silent the world has been regarding the killings, tortures, repressions and censorship ruling Iran, the more severe the repressions have become. In my opinion, government propaganda has no effect anymore. Today, more than ever, our people need international solidarity in order to defeat this government.
M.A. One of the major issues for us is the hijacking of “Women, Life, Freedom” by the West. Many people, associations, museums, and festivals are trying to make money from every movement. They want to create a brand, to sell t-shirts, bags, and hats. We want to prevent the West from creating a capitalist market from this revolutionary movement.
We are also fighting against the victimisation of Iranian women. They are so brave, so strong and they know what they want. They don’t actually need Western support. All the West has to do is to stop working with the Iranian government; to think about the people instead of the money. Human Rights and women’s rights are just clichés for the West from which they create markets. Look at what they did with Black Lives Matter. We want to avoid that from happening with “Women, Life, Freedom”.
N.B. I hope for the victory of Iranian women and people against this oppressive government. Please support the Iranian protest movement.
* Iranian activists refer to the wave of protests that began in September 2022 as the Jina Revolution, alluding to the Kurdish name of Mahsa Amini, who was killed in custody.